The Mines of Lam Tsuen – corruption, conviction and jail sentence
Tymon Mellor: Mining is always a high risk enterprise, but in the case of the Lam Tsuen lead mines, it was compounded by remote terrain, objecting villagers and corrupt officials. This is the story of the lead mines on the Lam Tsuen river at Ng Tung Chai, near Tai Po.
After the Second World War, interest in mining picked up with the rise in mineral prices and prospectors scoured the hills and valleys for signs of minerals. On the 24th January, 1947 three applicants, a Mr O’Neill, Mr Nicholson and Mr Scholey made an application to the Superintendent of Mines, a Mr W. M. Keay for a temporary mining licence for the areas on the north side of Tai Mo Shan alongside the Lam Tsuen River. By the time the application was recommended for approval on the 17th December, 1951, illicit mining had already commenced in the area with the sinking of an exploratory shaft.
Mr O’Neill was a retired civil servant and following the departure from Hong Kong of the other two backers, took on the temporary mining licence in his own name and provided the financial backing of HK$500,000. The records do not reveal how he acquired this money as at the time it was a vast sum. However, temporary Mining Licence Number 3, for an area of 827 acres was duly issued in 1952.
By 1953, a Mr. C. N. S. Burns, a retired chemist acquired a 50 percent share in Mr. O’Neill’s mining interest and by 1955, Mr. O’Neill transferred his interest to a company called the Lam Chuen Syndicate, both for a sum of money and for a guarantee that some of the shares in any public company formed to operate the mine would be made over to him. Mr. Burns became a shareholder to the extent of HK$100,000 in this new company. By the end of 1955 the Lam Chuen Syndicate was dissolved. One effect of this was that the members of the syndicate were relieved of any further obligation towards Mr. O’Neill. In its place they formed the Bohespic Syndicate, which consisted of nineteen persons and was an unincorporated group of individuals. Mr. Burns’ interest was transferred to the new syndicate under a new agreement, which also gave him 25 percent of the voting power in the company.
From late 1955 the Bohespic Syndicate was in negotiation with the Superintendent of Mines, Mr. Keay, to secure two things; firstly a licence over the area previously held by the Lam Chuen Syndicate plus a new area giving access to the main road (Lam Kam Road) which was important for the economic development of the property, and, secondly, the right to transfer the licences to a limited company to work the mine. The licences in question would have been valid for six months, with no guarantee of renewal. Mr. Keay alleged that a Mr. Tsao had already applied for the extra land, and that he would not surrender his right unless he was paid about HK$25,000. Mr. Keay purported to act as intermediary between Mr. Tsao and the syndicate. It afterwards transpired that Mr. Tsao was a fictitious person.
On 27th February, 1956, Mr. Keay granted the Bohespic Syndicate a prospecting licence and a mining licence, valid for six months, for an area including the additional land giving access to the main road. Mr Keay claimed that he had paid most of the compensation to Mr. Tsao. The syndicate was in some disagreement as to whether or not it should repay Mr. Keay for this transaction. Mr. Burns was against paying him, and on 10th April, 1965 made a report to the police about Mr. Keay. Meanwhile, the Bohespic Syndicate had become short of money. Its only assets were the licences it had acquired. It therefore concluded an agreement with the Mountain Lead Mines Company to transferred its interests to the this Company in return for 445,000 ordinary shares of one Hong Kong dollar each and 50,000 founder shares of 10 cents each. Mr. Burns received 100,000 of the one and 10,000 of the other.
Mountain Lead Mines Ltd was owned by Wheelock, Marden & Co., Ltd., with an authorised capital of HK$1 million, and on 17th May, 1956,the Bohespic Syndicate mining licence was transferred to Mountain Lead Mines Ltd, allowing the latter to commence exploration. The company engaged the services of a fully qualified British mining engineer and geologist and proceeded to prospect the area, assisted by three Europeans with mining experience and about eighty Chinese workmen. Modern accommodation was built for the workers, electricity installed and generally rapid progress was made.
Five exploratory headings were commenced and galena (lead ore) was located and locally sold in small quantities but sufficient to justify greater development. However, on the 15th March, 1957, without prior warning, the renewal of the mining licence was refused and work stopped on the site. Subsequently, the local villages objected to any further development or re-opening of the mines.
In June, 1956, after the transfer of the mining licence Mr Burns, reported the issue of the HK$25,000 and Mr Keay to the police, who arrested the Commissioner of Mines on the 6th July, 1965 along with three others. After a high profile court case, Mr Keay was found guilty and sentenced to two years imprisonment on the 28th September, 1956. The others were found not guilty.
Mr Burns and the Mountain Lead Mines Ltd, campaigned to get the mine re-opened, with letters and even a question in the UK Houses of Parliament over the behaviour of the Hong Kong government. The company, under Mr W. H Cheng worked hard to engage the local villagers, and by 1961 were offering to build a new six storey building for the Lam Tsuen Valley Committee in Tai Po and HK$1000 to each of the supporting village elders to be issued after the granting of a new mining licence. A supporting letter from the villages was duly sent to support the new mining application.
A confidential report from the District Commissioner, date 24th October, 1961 recorded that “I should add that Lam Chuen has always been, partly for historical reasons and partly by reasons of the nature of the terrain, a particularly self-contained and homogeneous area, and one in which public opinion is more than usually articulate”. The District Commissioner, Mr D R Homes canvassed two of the most influential village elders on the local feeling and concluded; it “is overwhelmingly, indeed vociferously, against prospecting or mining in the area.”
All applications from Mountain Lead Mines Ltd to reopen the workings were rejected on the grounds of villagers objections. A subsequent request from a Mrs Mary Urwin in 1966 to reopen the mines was also rejected.
In 1970 The Commissioner of Mines circulated a recent Geological Survey of Hong Kong, identifying six possible mining location is Hong Kong. The Lam Tsuen area was identified as a possible mining site, but rejected due to public objections.
Today, all that is left are the trial excavations. Some shallow, others deeper, following the quartz vein the minerals are associated with. The foundations of the accommodation units are now buried in the forest beneath long grass and fallen trees. As reported in Hansards, “Mining is a risky business and it’s hard to say whether revenue would or would not have materialised.”
- Hansard 28th April, 1952, http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1959/apr/28/hong-kong-mountain-lead-mines
- Various Government documents from the Public Records Office
This article was first posted on 10th January 2015.
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